Torture Should Be Accounted For

Torture is among the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It should never be excused, it should never go unpunished. It is not about who the tortured are, or what the tortured know. It is not about what they have done, what they believe, or whether they would do the same. It is about who we are, and how human beings should be treated. It is about our humanity, that is all.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Seeing the Future

It's possible to see the whole transition from a government based on liberty to one which is based on secrecy, on what is done in the dark, on spying and torture, as a problem with power and being wrong. As this unfolds into a panorama, it envelops even the science and science fiction that are the mores and mythology of a forward looking society, and takes the beautiful mystery of the future and turns it into the dark substance of fear. And then the mechanism which causes Darius Rejali's inevitable descent for the democracy that succumbs to torture (Rejali, Torture and Democracy), and turns it into a grotesque neurological event.

I just got done watching Paycheck three times in a row, after watching Next seven or eight times. I thought about watching Minority Report, too, somehow Philip K. Dick's notion of the future, or more appropriately, the screenwriters and directors reincarnations of his stories into Hollywood thrillers, contain a strange future, that is malleable, but that changes in unpredictable ways, as Nicholas Cage says in Next, "Because you looked at it." When his heroes try to control the future, evil follows, when they learn to trust the future, they triumph. Since they are heroes, then, the movie ends when they have trusted the blindness of not knowing what will happen next.

Actually, perhaps seeing the future should be given the instinctual pull of a classic Freudian drive like sex. We require it, we need it, if it is offered to us, we will take it, neglecting much else to get it. Take it away, and we retreat into a scared shell. We are filled with it. Consider: A cup falls off your desk, and your hand snaps out to catch it. Your very real hand meets the very real cup in the very real present, but your perception of everything is old. Your vision system has taken milliseconds to interpret the scene, your brain has taken time to retrieve or formulate a reaction, and then your hand meets the cup -- by seeing the future by a few tenths of a second.

You converse with another person. The whole time you are talking, both yours and the other person's mirror neurons are mimicking what the other is doing, helping you to predict what they will do in reaction to your words. If the future goes blank, if you are totally at a loss to predict how the other will react to you, you become fearful and uncomfortable, usually. Denial of any form of information about your surroundings that you are used to having produces anxiety. Being granted even the slightest extra vision of the future is a tremendous advantage: When a dangerous situation occurs, those who are in it will frequently report afterward that "time stood still." It doesn't really, it does seem to move slowly. If one is trained to take advantage of this shift, one is functioning at normal speed and solving the problems involved with our limited abilities to predict the future instantaneously, with the advantage of a few tenths of a second. This training, which some practice in martial arts, for example, means an enormous difference of advantage.

Power perverts this already extremely strong desire for the future. Perhaps it is because the population is so high now, to get to the top of a sizable hierarchy, you have to have advantages and plans, and aggressiveness. And the loss of that position is so much more precious when it takes a lifetime to get there. If there is any accountability, and there tends to be in free and open societies, then a mistake will cause that fall. So where power is involved, there can be no mistakes. And this produces two perverse consequences: Any mistakes that do occur must be covered up completely or recast, and further mistakes must be prevented at all costs. The human way to do that is to know the future.

Isn't this what was bragged about, to Ron Suskind, that famous quote?
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
This is an exposition on the nature of the future and of power. The implication is that the actors create the present and the past, and that the "reality-based community" perceives the past. By controlling the present and past, the speaker is saying that they know the future, in this case because it is what they choose it to be. The speaker is alluding to the fact that this is complete power. Whereas knowing the future, even a little bit of it, with total certainty, confers an awesome power, controlling the future, in this case all of it, confers total power. The listener is left to believe they are powerless, and that they would not or could not understand the future. As much as this statement has been mocked, as much as the hubris to which it points has been pointed out, its equation of control over the future to power is as correct as it is shocking.

It lays out the formula for the special forms of mental torment involved in purely psychological, scar-less torture, too. Philip Zimbardo talks about the collapse of time perspective in the Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, pp. 243 ff.), that prisoners "magnified their focus on the awful present by talikng about the immediate situation and rarely about their past or future..." The lack of knowledge of the future becomes extreme with threats of death, or threats of being incommunicado ("no one will know what happens to you"), and reaches a psyche destroying level when the senses or social interaction are deprived. Ultimately, the mind shreds when there is no longer any sensory input, and all avenues to predicting what will happen next are robbed from the prisoner. The ultimate form of helplessness is in not being able to form any conception of the present with which the brain predicts the future to decide its next action. In infant animals, deprivation of the senses leads to loss of the senses, as different sensory organs compete for space in cortex. As animals mature, there are two processes that accompany sensory loss, the lack of synapse (connections between neurons) production, and the inability of the brain to prune connections it has made, a necessary process to weed out faulty ones and strengthen pathways that form useful memories. The brain invests nearly all of its memory energy in creating productive ways to predict bits of the future. As its ability to do so is impaired, it begins to lose that ability, a sort of future looking atrophy, if you will.

Consequently, the ability to predict the future is an empowering thing, the ability to control the future, or control the future of another, is power and control. In a world where this is all there is, information control becomes paramount. Secrecy is a form of control, it prohibits an opponent to form correct models of what will happen next, it prevents mistakes from having occurred. The grip on power is preserved if mistakes do not occur, mistakes are the incorrect prediction of the future. In this model, which perverts the desire to know the future into an obsession to control it, mistakes occur for two reasons: the perpetrator did not know the future with sufficient clarity, and, the opponent knew too much of the future and gained advantage.

Thus the intelligence officer being pressured to get more intelligence is made to feel that he or she has caused harm by failing to procure information. Leaks are blamed for anything from a lost initiative to a bungled war, because secrecy is paramount when control of predictions is the battle. As the price for being wrong increases, which it does with the exclusivity of the powerful position, the drive to know or control more and more of what will happen becomes extreme. No price is too much to achieve the predicted outcome, because faith in the prediction is the source of power.

And at the bottom of this information/power structure, the interrogator comes to hate the prisoner, which allows the descent into mistreatment. With each more abusive technique, the prisoner who doesn't divulge information is thwarting the objectives of the interrogator, preventing the intelligence from being collected, rendering those for whom the interrogator cares powerless and blind. Soon attempts to force information out become revenge. Soon confessions replace information as the desired reaction. Confessions are a form of the prisoner accepting the interrogator's reality, they confer power, the power to dictate reality. The punishments remove the power to control oneself. Breaking the prisoner becomes the goal.

There is a word for breaking a person or depriving them of all predictive abilities so that they cannot in and of themselves see what will happen to them. There is a word for it because it forces their psyches to turn all of the senses on full blast with an increase in adrenalin. There is a word for the practice of causing unreasoning fear and panic, that sense they have of not knowing what to do to remove themselves from either the pain or the uncertainty of the present. There is a word for depriving someone of their future to manipulate them. It's called terrorism. And people who practice torture, who order the destruction of one person's future to service their own control of the future, who derive power by controlling the future that rightfully belongs to others, are nothing more or less than terrorists.

I did go back and watch Minority Report. Agatha, the pre-cog, reminds people, she whispers and she screams, that people who know their own future have a choice. History's actors, then have more choice than most. And people who have a choice should be responsible for what they have chosen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

However the imposition of "terrorism" on an individual by a group or the state stands in stark distinction to the terrorism enacted by an individual against a mass people because the former deprives the individual of autonomy and self-determination. The body politic sustains such blows efficiently